In an effort to help cities meet clear air targets and promote environmentally friendly growth, the Chinese central government announced it will start publishing a list of its 10 worst — and best — cities for air pollution each month.
On the central government website, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli said, “We must put air quality control as an ecological red line for economic management and social development. Air pollution control is a long, arduous and complex mission. We need to highlight the control of major polluted cities and strengthen the reduction and management of various polluters.”
Publishing a list of the most polluted cities is a method for the national government to force local officials to take action to clean up China’s air.
A heavy smog that engulfed industrial northern China, including the capital Beijing, in January lead to a sour mood of discontent descending across the region. And an increasingly affluent and urban population are reconsidering the growth-at-all-costs attitude that has fueled much of China’s growth over the last few decades.
The January smog surpassed the air quality index of 300, which means people should not venture outdoors at all according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Also this year a landmark study found that severe pollution has slashed an average of five and a half years from the life expectancy in northern China as toxic air has led to higher rates of stroke, heart disease and cancer.
“I think the policy is a very good inspirational mechanism, especially for those cities on the ‘shaming’ list, so that they can work to get off the list quicker,” Huang Wei, Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace China, told CNN. “However, it is not enough to rank those cities. It’s also important to control energy, especially coal consumption. Some cities didn’t clarify how much they are going to reduce their coal consumption. The lack of a number makes us worried that there won’t be any dramatic change in terms of air quality.”
China burns almost four billion tons of coal a year, or nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. China’s coal use grew by 325 million tons in 2011, accounting for 87 percent of the 374 million ton global increase in coal use. Scientists have found pollution and dust generated in China settling in places as far away as California.
CREDIT: U.S. Energy Information Administration
The central government is aware of the growing problem, and is starting to take action on several fronts, the most recent being the list of worst-polluting cities. The government also recently said it would stop approving coal-fired power plants in heavily polluted industrial areas and announced a national goal of lowering the concentration of harmful particles in the air by at least 10 percent between 2012 and 2017 levels.
In July, the government said it would spend $275 billion through 2018 to reduce pollution levels around Beijing. China also announced that by 2017 it hopes to have cut total coal consumption to below 65 percent of its total primary energy use and boost the share of non-fossil fuel energy to 13 percent.
Having strict laws is only part of the equation of reducing pollution, however — the other important part is enforcement. Some of this can be accomplished though incentives or punitive actions, such as would be the case with a carbon trading scheme, which is currently in the pilot stages in several of the most polluted cities.
But public support is necessary as well, and that’s where the shaming comes in.
“The real No. 1 barrier to environmental protection in China is not lack of money or technology,” Mr. Ma, one of the country’s best-known environmental activists told the Christian Science Monitor last year. “It is lack of motivation. We need the public to provide that motivation. But they must be informed before they can participate in any meaningful way.”
“We have the laws and regulations, but enforcement remains very weak,” Ma continued. “Environmental agencies in China are hamstrung by local officials who put economic growth ahead of environmental protection; even the courts are beholden to local officials, and they are not open to environmental litigation.”
The Chinese government did not say when the list will be released, but a recent Asian Development Bank study found that seven of the world’s top ten most air-polluted cities were in China, so the competition is sure to be fierce.